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IRS Leveraging Cell Phone Spying Equipment in Important Investigations

8 May

There’s an old saying that tells us the only two certainties in life are “death” and “taxes” – meaning that the only thing you can really guarantee is that both types of debt are going to come due sooner rather than later. According to a new report covered by websites like Truth Revolt and in publications like The Guardian, the IRS may be even more unscrupulous than the Grim Reaper himself. It seems as though IRS agents have been using “sophisticated cell phone dragnet equipment,” otherwise known as advanced cell phone spying tools, to collect information on American citizens who may be more-than-a-little behind on their taxes.

The IRS and Spying: What’s Going On

Thanks to information obtained through what was supposed to be a fairly standard Freedom of Information Act request, it was revealed that the IRS made a number of large purchases between 2009 and 2012 with a company called Harris Corporation. What makes this so interesting is that Harris Corporation is one of the few companies on earth that manufactures “Stingray” devices, which are often used by law enforcement personnel to simulate a cell phone tower in the area.

“Stingray” devices are actually a pretty ingenious way to use a cell phone’s own standard method of operation against the user. Whenever you make a call (or send a text message, or use the cellular network to access the Internet), your phone connects to a nearby cell tower in the area. It essentially uses this tower as a “jumping on point” to gain access to the larger network – your phone connects to the tower, and the tower is connected to the World Wide Web.

If you were to send a text, it would first go through the tower and then across the network to your recipient. In a “Stingray” situation, however, the tower is an illegitimate one used by local law enforcement (or in this case, the IRS). Your phone can’t tell the difference, and, in most cases, neither can the user as they’re still sending and receiving the information they needed with no clear signs that something might be wrong.

Because that fake cell tower is in third-party control, whoever happens to be using the “Stingray” device can see EVERY kilobyte of data sent and received over it. If you’re a drug dealer who is using a smartphone to buy and sell your product and you happen to accidentally use a “Stingray” set up by the cops, law enforcement now knows what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. If you’re a private citizen who is actively avoiding paying your taxes (or who is using your smartphone to conceal your income) and use one of those same “Stingray” towers monitored by the IRS, suddenly your secret activities aren’t so secret anymore.

One of the invoices obtained during the Freedom of Information Act request shows that the IRS spent more than $65,000 in 2012 upgrading their equipment to the “HailStorm” product line, which is essentially a more powerful version of the original “Stingray” architecture. Likewise, they spent about $6,000 during the same year training their employees on how to use them. Privacy advocates, including those at the ACLU, say that this is a clear example of the “wide proliferation” of this very invasive type of surveillance technology. To its credit, the ACLU is currently in the process of an investigation.

Former employees of the IRS have been helpful in terms of shedding light onto the full extent of this program. Many say that they are in use by the CID or “Criminal Investigation Division,” a branch of the IRS that currently employs between 2,000 and 3,000 people. It is said that the IRS leans heavily on “more gentle” investigation tactics and only employs these surveillance options when absolutely necessary. If you think you’ll be protected by the fact that you need a warrant to use “Stingray,” unfortunately you’d be wrong – experts agree that they’re surprisingly easy to obtain.


7 Beautifully Simple Ways to Stop Your Gadgets From Spying on You

17 Apr

In terms of the modern-day gadgets that fill our lives, convenience is something of a two-way street. For every great new device we purchase, we seem to have to give up a little bit of our privacy in return. In reality, this isn’t necessarily the case. There are a number of beautifully simple steps that you can take right now to stop your gadgets from spying on you for the foreseeable future. All you have to do is know the full extent of the problem you’re trying to solve and where, specifically, you need to look for the solution.

  1. Clear Those Cookies

Cookies aren’t just a way to make websites load faster the second time you visit them. They also store a huge amount of information about what you’re doing on those sites that could be sold to the highest bidder. Set your Internet browser to automatically clear cookies after every session for the best results – you can find this option in the “Privacy” screen.


  1. Disable Location Services

Most smartphones are tracking a huge amount of information about your location and other activities from the moment you turn them on for the first time. Always go into the “Settings” application and find the “Location Services” option. Take a look at every app or function that has permission to view your location and disable whatever you don’t feel comfortable with. You can also often force apps to ask permission before they view your location data – this is the case with all iPhone models, for example.


  1. Put a Piece of Tape Over Your Camera

If you think the little indicator light on your laptop computer’s camera will save you from being spied on without your knowledge, think again. Hackers who know what they’re doing can remotely activate the camera without your knowledge, recording everything that happens in front of the lens. The solution? Simple – just put a piece of electrician’s tape over the camera until you’re ready to use it. Problem solved!


  1. Purchase the Right Equipment

If you’re truly concerned that your devices may be spying on you, it might be time to invest in the right equipment. The VoiceKeeper FSM-U1 Cellphone Scrambler, for example, is a professional grade cell phone scrambler that offers the highest grade cell phone encryption available on the market today. Just purchase one for your phone and one for whoever you’re talking to during conversations you want to protect, and nobody will be able to hear a thing.


  1. Two-Factor Authentication

The importance of activating two-factor authentication on any device or account that you own simply cannot be overstated enough. Even if someone learns an account password, they still won’t be able to gain access without physical access to a secondary device like your smartphone.


  1. Update Everything Whenever You Can

You should always make it a priority to update EVERY device you own – from computers to tablets to smartphones to the software that runs on them – whenever the option becomes available. Many people don’t realize that updates aren’t just for fixing bugs and adding new features – they often include security patches that close loopholes that others may be using to spy on you.


  1. Pay Attention to the News and Know Which Gadgets NOT to Buy

Finally, we have a tip that won’t necessarily help if you already own an affected device, but nevertheless is important to know for the future. Always pay attention to tech blogs and other news sources for information on devices with massive privacy concerns. Case in point: Recently, Vizio came under fire when it was revealed that certain models of its smart TVs collected and viewed more data than they were originally letting on. A few years ago, Samsung came under fire for the fact that certain models were randomly activating their built-in cameras to spy on their owners. Make privacy a part of your research before you buy any type of electronic device.


Not-So-Perfect Encryption: What You Must Know About the WhatsApp Vulnerability

5 Apr

WhatsApp is more than just a freeware messaging platform and SMS text messaging alternative. Since its original development by Facebook over eight years ago, it has become one of the most popular apps of its type in existence. According to a post on the company’s own blog, more than 100 million voice calls alone are made every day as of June 2016. By early January of 2015, the service had over 700 million monthly active users all over the world and sent over 30 billion text-based messages each day. By any metric you can think of, that’s a massive success.

A lot of WhatsApp’s popularity stems from the fact that it offers a very key feature that other services don’t — end-to-end encryption. Since 2014, WhatsApp has offered total encryption to all users free of charge. This means that only the person sending the message and the person receiving it can actually read it. Even if someone does happen to be using sophisticated technology to intercept that data while it’s in transmission, it would be completely unreadable. To its credit, Facebook has always claimed that NOBODY can intercept WhatsApp messages — even Facebook employees.

A recently uncovered vulnerability, however, calls all of this into question.

The WhatsApp Situation

For end-to-end encryption to work properly, only two people can have decryption keys — the sender and the recipient. So long as nobody has physical access to either of the two devices, a conversation is completely impenetrable. A security vulnerability — one that was intentionally built into the app’s code by its developers — changes things significantly, however. Experts have stated that WhatsApp actually has the ability to “force” the creation of a secondary set of encryption keys for offline users, all without actually telling the users what is going on.

This means that if someone is targeted by the United States government, for example, WhatsApp can actually generate a secondary set of encryption keys that would let officials spy on messages being sent and received. All the while, the original users would think that nothing was wrong.

The vulnerability was originally discovered by a cryptography and security researcher named Tobias Boelter at the University of California. He reported what he initially assumed to be a problem to Facebook in April of 2016, only to be told that this was “expected behavior.” Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see that this is less a flaw and more a “feature” — one that has harrowing implications on freedom of speech and cyber privacy in general. Since Boelter’s findings, other organizations like The Guardian have been able to confirm that the vulnerability still exists as of January 2017.

Naturally, this was big news when the story originally broke. Members of the WhatsApp team said that this is seen as “acceptable” because, in theory, it will never affect the majority of the service’s users. For this “security loophole” to be employed at all, a particular user or set of users must be targeted. It’s not like someone could read any of the billions of messages being sent each day if they wanted to, someone needs a reason to look at the messages of a select person. The fact that the vulnerability exists at all, however, calls the company’s entire mantra of “privacy for all” into question.

Thankfully, there is a mechanism built into the WhatsApp application that allows users to see if this vulnerability is actively being used. By opening the app and selecting the “Security” option, followed by the “Account” option and then navigating to the “Security” screen, they can enable a feature called “Show Security Notifications.” This will alert a user when a contact’s security code has been changed. While this does happen if someone buys a new phone or uninstalls and reinstalls the app, it will ALSO happen if decryption codes are changed due to someone making use of this security issue.

The Most Incredible Spy Gadgets That Are Actually Real

8 Mar

When people hear the term “spy gadgets,” they normally call to mind fanciful images of cinematic spies like James Bond and his many incredible adventures. Who can forget the time that Sean Connery used a jet pack to escape some would-be attackers? What about that time Pierce Brosnan used a powerful laser built into a watch to destroy the lock on an escape hatch, running away from a train car just seconds before it exploded?

Many people don’t realize that while laser watches and exploding briefcases may be the stuff of fantasy, spy gadgets, in general, are very, very real. The hardworking men and women of intelligence communities around the world use them on a daily basis to do everything from evading detection to collecting data on those who are up to no good. Out of all the incredible spy gadgets out there in the wild that are actually real, there are a few in particular that you’re definitely going to want to know about.

Turn Your Smartphone Into a Thermal Camera

To say that your iPhone or Android smartphone is a powerful little device is something of an understatement. When you look at it from the perspective of raw computing power, even an original iPhone has more to offer than the technology that was used to send men to the moon in the 1960s. From that angle, it makes perfect sense that a lot of modern-day spy devices are designed to work directly with a phone like these.

Case in point: Many companies make accessories that turn your iPhone into a thermal camera in an instant. Once the device is attached (the same way you might attach a set of headphones) and the app is installed, you can get a detailed heat display of literally anything you point it at.

Cell Jammers

Speaking of cell phones, have you ever been in a situation where you were pretty sure your calls were being monitored? How about those times where you’re in a public place like a movie theater and you just wish the person next to you would stop talking long enough for you to enjoy the film you paid money to see?

Whether you’re an intelligence professional on the job or just someone who wants to annoy rude people, many companies make cell jammers that let you do all this and more with the press of a button. These devices, for example, let you totally stop ALL cellular transmissions in a short range – from 4G to 3G to 2G and even GPS!

Hidden Cameras Are Everywhere

These days, the idea that a camera can be hidden in a normal, everyday object is certainly nothing new. You can buy cameras hidden in wall clocks, desk lamps, pens and just about anything else you can think of. Some spy gadgets, however, take this concept to the next level – as evidenced by the Zippo-style cigarette lighter with a camera hidden inside!

Speaking of compact spy technology, you’ll also want to take a look at this unique coin. Not only does it look and feel exactly like a regular coin, but it’s also got a stunning secret – it’s actually hollow and is large enough to house a microSD card to safeguard all your personal data! If you were to use both the hidden camera Zippo and the coin, you could capture footage just about anywhere without anyone ever suspecting what you’re up to.

Dead Drop Bolts

If you’ve ever needed to get something small to another person but had to do so away from prying eyes, you definitely could have used a dead drop bolt. Based on an old Russian idea, these are designed to look like normal, everyday items – in some cases literally a bolt or a screw – that are hollow on the inside. You can use it to conceal whatever you need (like a piece of paper containing Dr. No’s nuclear launch codes, for example), hide the item in plain sight and get that data into the hands of the people who need it the most.


The Most Horrifying Elevator Prank Ever? You Be the Judge (But Yes, Yes it Is)

22 Feb

Since hidden cameras and other types of surveillance equipment have both become more advanced and more affordable than ever, two unique things have happened – only one of which could have been predicted. People regularly use hidden cameras to do everything from protect their homes while they’re away to record traffic accident footage that can then be used to their benefit in a court of law. At the same time, prank shows from around the world of seized hold of this technological revolution to their advantage – as one show in Brazil recently proved.

Elevator Prank

Programa Silvio Santos

“Programa Silvio Santos,” a variety show based out of Brazil and airing in that country on a regular basis, has long been known for its elaborate hidden camera pranks. If you’re familiar with viral videos like “Pig Grinder” or “Magnetic Soup,” you’re aware of the content being generated by these mischievous performers whether you realized it or not.

Recently, however, the show runners at “Programa Silvio Santos” seemed ready and willing to up the ante – much to our delight and the terror of some unsuspecting victims. Though the show’s hidden camera pranks have always been lighthearted in nature, this latest – dubbed “Ghost in the Elevator” is anything but.

If you’re a horror film fan, you’re no doubt familiar with the trope of “the scary little kid.” It’s something that has been commonplace in both American and Japanese horror in particular since Stanley Kubrick tore apart the genre and built it back up again with “The Shining.” It’s also something that some unaware victims got to experience up close and personal.

“Ghost in the Elevator” begins fairly normally, with people getting onto an elevator and hitting a “floor” button – something they’ve probably done hundreds if not thousands of times before in their lives. Soon, however, things take a turn.

The elevator stops – a malfunction, perhaps? These things happen. Then, the lights begin to flicker. An electrical surge? Maybe it’s related to the elevator stopping. None of this is exactly out of the ordinary and maintenance workers will probably be along to fix the issue shortly.

Then, however, a little girl appears OUT OF NOWHERE. In reality, she’s a performer who appears out of a trap door built into the side of the elevator for this specific purpose, but our would-be horror movie victims don’t know this yet. She appears silently in one corner of the room, as if she were conjured there, clutching a doll and looking precisely like something out of the famous Japanese horror film “The Ring.”

About three seconds later, it finally hits these people that they are literally standing in the first act of every horror movie they’ve ever seen and they react accordingly. If you’ve always watched these movies and thought beyond the shadow of a doubt that you’d be able to keep it together were you to ever find yourself in a similar situation, you may want to watch this YouTube video and think again.

To be fair to the victims, the staff at “Programa Silvio Santos” really do go all out. What makes the video extra creepy is that this is ostensibly supposed to be a comedy show, meaning that the most terrifying moment of these people’s lives is played out under a laugh track that sounds like something out of old “I Love Lucy” episodes. The juxtaposition alone is enough to take this out of the realm of simple variety show and into the arena of terrifying performance art.

Yet none of this would be possible without the types of high quality, cost effective and covert hidden cameras that have quickly become the new norm throughout our daily lives. If this is the type of thing that “Programa Silvio Santos” is cooking up, we can’t wait to see what they have in store for the future.

Or, on second thought, we can. We definitely, definitely can wait.


Meet the Man Who Builds Secret Spy Gadgets for a Living, Just Like Q From James Bond

20 Feb

Everyone loves the “James Bond” franchise – as evidenced by the fact that it is still going strong for over 50 years. Though James Bond himself may change to reflect the world around him, going from a suave product of the 1960s to the post-Cold War patriot of the Brosnan era right up to the “blunt force instrument” that he is today, one thing has remained the same: everyone’s favorite part of the films is when Q shows up to give him some incredible new gadget that will probably come in handy during the third act.


Played for years by Desmond Llewelyn, Q was one of the few cast members who DIDN’T change – even as Bond himself did. Many people always believed that Q was pure fantasy – some byproduct of Ian Fleming’s wild imagination. Based on that, it might surprise you that there IS a Q in real-life and he’s probably out there building some fancy new spy gadget right now.

Meet Ralph Osterhout

Ralph Osterhout grew up loving Bond like just about everyone does. But the thing that separates him from those millions upon millions of other people is that after becoming obsessed with Fleming’s novels in particular, he dedicated his life to becoming a spy himself. He learned how to shoot like James Bond. How to drive like James Bond. How to fight like him. After studying the gadget-heavy films, he also learned how to build his own weapons and gadgets that would make the prop masters on “The Living Daylights” sit up and take notice.

When Osterhout hit is 20s, he decided to take his passion and his hobby to the next level and turn it into a career. He started his own business, first building state-of-the-art diving gear. He made such an impression on his clients that eventually, the United States government took notice.

The U.S. government was in need of specialty equipment for their Navy SEAL divers – the most elite of the elite. Because Osterhout had been spending some of his free time training SEALs, he seemed like a natural fit. He soon got to work and changed everything we think about real-life spy gear in the process.

First, Osterhout build closed-circuit rebreathers and other protection systems to help keep SEALs safe on underwater excursions. Then, he build a system that allowed SEALs to target nuclear submarines from the Soviet Union – all while going entirely undetected. More of his specially designed equipment was used by the government for the next few decades, particularly in Desert Storm and during the war in Iraq.

Perhaps the high point of his career was when he designed a specialty dive vehicle for the United States Navy that would go on to be featured in not one but two James Bond films: “Never Say Never Again” (which marked Sean Connery’s return to the franchise) and “The Spy Who Loved Me.” In many ways, the circle of Osterhout’s life was now complete. He wasn’t just looking up to Q as he supplied high tech gear to James Bond. He had literally BECOME Q, arming not one but two different Bonds (including the original, and his favorite) with the tech they needed to stop the bad guy and save the world once and for all.

When the Cold War ended, Osterhout adapted – just as his idol James Bond had before him. He pivoted into toy development and was responsible for some of the biggest hits of the 1990s – the TalkBoy and the Yak Bak being just two examples.

The next time you watch a classic “James Bond” film and Desmond Llewelyn scorches across the screen as Q, just remember that while the character may be fictional and the gadgets may seem fantastical – they’re more based in reality than you might think.


Six Spy Gadgets Ripped From the Movies That Actually Exist  

11 Jan

One of the most exciting elements of every spy movie isn’t necessarily the surveillance that is constantly going on, but rather the state-of-the-art gadgets used by the main character to conduct that surveillance in the first place. James Bond has had an endless number of advanced gadgets over the years, and even Batman has his utility belt filled with everything from trackers to audio recorders. You may be surprised to learn that not all of these devices are science fiction — thanks to the break-neck pace at which technology has evolved, many of them have become science FACT.

Here is a list of six spy gadgets that may feel like they were ripped straight from a Hollywood feature film but that are available for you to buy right now.


Clear HD Video Glasses w/ 8GB Internal Memory

If these eyeglasses with an HD video recorder inside look familiar, it’s probably because one of the main characters uses something very similar in the film “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” The camera lens is hidden in the bridge of the glasses, making them perfect for discrete face-to-face recording. They can capture faces very clearly from across a room thanks to a 720p HD resolution and even have 90 full minutes of battery life.


HD Spy Watch with Night Vision

James Bond regularly uses spy watches throughout his daily life, though most of those have lasers hidden inside. Though the HD Spy Watch with Night Vision won’t let you break into a safe, it WILL allow you to capture crystal clear, 1080p HD video even in total darkness. It stores one hour of HD video with no memory card, has a two-hour battery life and is even water resistant — allowing it to record in a wide range of conditions.


Paraben iPhone iRecovery Stick

On the TV show “Breaking Bad,” Walter White once used a simple USB device to monitor his DEA-agent brother’s investigations of his criminal empire. Sounds like a plot device, right? Wrong. You can essentially do the same thing right now with the Paraben iPhone iRecovery Stick. This spy device recovers ALL deleted data from iOS devices like iPhones and iPads and can even help restore lost voicemails, social media messages and more in a way that won’t leave a trace.


Executive Digital Audio Recording Pen – MQ72

On the recent HBO show “Vice Principals,” one of the main characters uses a spy pen to record the illicit activities of their boss with the intention of later using that data for blackmail. It becomes a pretty significant plot device, but what you may not realize is that similar pens exist in real life right now. The Executive Digital Audio Recording Pen captures crystal clear audio, even across a large room. It’s voice activated, stores 16 hours of audio and features an astounding 12-hour battery life.

720p HD Wi-Fi IP Light Bulb Camera

Just about every room you walk into has a light bulb in it, but what you may not realize is that every room may ALSO have a camera as well. The 720p HD Wi-Fi IP Light Bulb Camera doesn’t just include 720p HD video recording capabilities, but it can also live stream video to a phone or tablet for covert surveillance. This is exactly the type of thing that a movie spy would use to get a leg up on the international terrorist he was trying to bring down once and for all.

Xtremelife Smoke Detector Camera with 30 Day Battery Vision

Finally, we have the Xtremelife Smoke Detector Camera — a motion activated camera that records astounding 720p quality video, even in total darkness. It features a 30-day battery life and can store up to 19 hours of HD video with a 64GB memory card. Q from MI-6 was great at hiding cameras and other surveillance equipment in everyday items, so we’re honestly a little surprised that he didn’t come up with this one first!